Skuldelev 3 Revisited

In 1962, the remains of five Viking Age ships were excavated near Skuldelev on Roskilde Fjord. The five Skuldelev ships were a unique and invaluable archaeological find as they represented each of the main vessel types that typified Viking Age seafaring: a large ocean going trading vessel, two warships and two smaller coastal transport/fishing vessels. Over the next years, the five ships were documented, conserved and reconstructed for exhibition in the newly-built Viking Ship Hall. The ships were so well preserved, that the idea of building 1:1 sailing reconstructions of all five of the Skuldelev ships quickly arose.

In 1982, twenty years after the excavation, the Viking Ship Museum began building its first Viking ship reconstruction. They chose the best preserved of the five ships to start with: the 14 m long coastal transport and trading vessel, Skuldelev 3. Over the next two years, a group of volunteers built Roar Ege at the Museum boatyard. The Roar Ege Project marked the start a process that would form the core of the Museum’s research endeavours: the experimental archaeological reconstruction of archaeological ship and boat finds.

Roar Ege was launched in 1984 and the seaborne part of the archaeological experiment could begin. A volunteer boat guild was established and systematic sailing and rowing tests were carried out to determine the ship’s sailing abilities. These tests – and the reconstruction process that went before it – drew on the combined expertise of many different specialists, including sailors, boatbuilders and archaeologists.

After more than 30 years on the water, Roar Ege has many sea miles under its keel, including voyages to Gotland, Poland and France, as well as countless days on the seas around Denmark. 

The years have, however, taken their toll on the ship. Roar Ege has undergone several major phases of repair – most recently in 2014 when the stringer, many of the iron rivets and sections of the planking material were replaced. It was hoped this repair would keep Roar Ege in action for several more years but by spring 2016, the hull had deteriorated to such an extent that it was clear Roar Ege’s sailing days were over. Interestingly, it’s not the oak in the hull that’s turned out to be the weak point. Rather, it’s the iron rivets that hold the clinker-laid strakes together. The rivets have rusted and expanded to such a degree, that they have led to numerous cracks in the hull’s planking, causing the ship to leak.

To repair the damage now would be to break with the terms of the archaeological experiment: the Vikings would most likely have stripped the ship of any timbers that could be reused and scrapped the rest. So 33 years after Roar Ege was launched, the Museum’s first reconstructed Viking ship will now be permanently exhibited on land.The hull will now be studied and recorded in detail, in order to gain a thorough understanding of the processes of age and decay. This data will then be used to draw initial conclusions concerning the potential lifespan of the Museum’s other reconstructed Viking ships, as well as shedding light on the longevity of ships in the past.

Roar Ege may have entered into retirement but the programme of experimental archaeological research continues.

Since the reconstruction of the Skuldelev ships began over 30 years ago, it has been a fixed principle for the Museum that the Skuldelev ships are best understood when we have a full-scale, sailing reconstruction of each of them. To that end, in 2017 we will begin the construction of our second reconstruction of Skuldelev 3 and a new project – Skuldelev 3 revisted – will begin.

This reconstruction won’t, however, be an exact copy of Roar Ege. The experimental archaeological methods practised at the Museum have been greatly refined in the 35 years since the construction of Roar Ege began. We can now look at the original ship find from a completely different perspective: one of many years collective experience in the interpretation and reconstruction of archaeological ships, with all the insight and inherent understanding that affords.

The reconstruction process will begin from scratch, starting with a re-examination of the surviving timbers of Skuldelev 3 as well as the 1:1 documentation carried out at the time of its excavation. A new 1:10 scale-model will be produced, which will form the basis for the full-scale reconstruction.

This new interpretation of Skuldelev 3 will reflect not just the Museum’s advances in the reconstruction of archaeological ship-finds, but also the practical experiences Roar Ege’s boat guild have accumulated during their many years of sailing. This combination of archaeological material, ship reconstruction, boatbuilding and sailing experience provides the foundation for a much more nuanced and accurate interpretation of Skuldelev 3.

Over the next three years, you can follow the progress with the build here on the website. 

Latest news from the Skuldelev 3 project:

Skuldelev 3 Revisited - a new Viking ship is being built at the Viking Ship Museum's boatyard. Construction will be completed in September / October 2021.

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